2. Q. What do you need to know in order to live and die in the joy of this comfort?
A. First, how great my sins and misery are; second, how I am delivered from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to be thankful to God for such deliverance.
Note that these three things are in a particular order. They have to come in this order or we have made a jumble of Christianity itself. Indeed, all throughout history these three things have been not only scrambled into different orders, but one or more have been excluded in preaching, and therefore we are receiving an incomplete word of God. We are either brow-beaten with the law without any Gospel comfort, or we are given a false hope without knowing our miserable state, leading to an entrenchment in our own sin.
One error seems easier to fix than the other. Much of today's preaching is law without gospel, encouraging the congregation to "try harder" and if they don't see results, they aren't "doing it" right. Anything can be law, not just the moral laws found in the Bible. Being a better spouse or father, anything "self help," consists of rules to live by, rules that will be broken, because we are sinful. Even hearing the voice of God can become law when we compare our walks with others.
So, as a result, many preachers err in the opposite direction, hitting the congregation with inspirational, feel-good platitudes. Calling sin "mistakes" or "failures," keeping us from understanding our true misery as actual rebels and haters of God and each other. At least we aren't "trying harder" as when we were clobbered with the law, but this error leaves us in the same state as before, but now with an extra dose of pride, due to our perception that God wants to be our helper in life. Whatever you were doing before, keep doing it, and now you can arrogantly believe that God approves of it and wants to help you accomplish it. This error in preaching is harder to fix, because the applause it receives is intoxicating. Our churches grow at exponential rates when we believe that God is fine with our lives. Only just replace that alcoholism or sexual perversion that you were getting "high" on with Jesus, who is the ultimate high.
Zacharias Ursinus confirms this in his commentary on the catechism: "because without the knowledge of our sinfulness and misery, we cannot hear the gospel with profit ; for unless, by the preaching of the law as touching sin and the wrath of God, a preparation be made for the proclamation of grace, a carnal security follows, and our comfort becomes
unstable. Sure consolation cannot stand in connection with carnal security.
Hence it is manifest that we must commence with the preaching of the law,
after the example of the Prophets and Apostles, that men may thus be
cast down from the conceit of their own righteousness, and may obtain a
knowledge of themselves, and be led to true repentance. Unless this be
done, men will become, through the preaching of grace, more careless and
obstinate, and pearls will be cast before swine to be trodden under foot." The law exists to cast us down from our self-righteousness, and without it, we become secure in our carnal nature.
What is the state of our misery? It's worse than we think. Look at Romans 3, and apply this description to yourself, because "Jews and Greeks" encompasses all people on earth:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside;
together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
“Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
in their paths are ruin and misery,
and the way of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God (Romans 3:10-19).
That sounds extreme, but we need this extreme description to see how God views us. Here's another list from 1 Corinthians, which hits closer to home, because it contains sins that we can identify with:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10)
These are things some or many of which we can say we've participated in, even if it only involves cheating, getting drunk, or just being generally greedy. That stuff may not seem so bad to us, but to God we appear as "worthless," our throats "open graves," our speech the "venom of asps." We need to understand this about ourselves, if the good news is ever to make any sense to us. The next verse of 1 Corinthians 6 is the hope we seek from the horror of such misery:
And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Corinthians 6:11).
Christians are those who were once condemned but are no longer. Note the passive verbs: were washed, were sanctified, were justified. The transfer of Christians from condemnation to salvation is not a work of the Christians themselves but the work solely of God. This is good news, because it reveals that we are not saved through our own efforts but through God's, and he is faithful and true. He won't screw it up like we would. Finally, let's look at Titus 3:
For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works (Titus 3:3-8).
Again, Paul tells us that we all were once in this state of corruption, where we can't even get along among ourselves. But God is good and loving and he loved us in a certain way: he sent his son to die in our place, as if Jesus Christ deserved death instead of us. His righteousness is credited to us and our sin to him. The final goal in all this is eternal life, the resurrection from the dead. Now, notice at the end of the passage that Paul says that through faith in what God has done for us, we are to devote ourselves to good works, not as saving works but as works of gratitude that naturally come out of our faith. This is the third part of the catechetical answer: how we show our thanks to God for our redemption. If there is no change in our behavior, it's not because we didn't try hard enough. Good works come out of a saving faith in Christ's shed blood for our sin. These good works are incremental steps in our walk, but they exist nonetheless.
So, these three parts of the answer to the second question of the Heidelberg Catechism are to be considered in order. Indeed, the rest of the catechism is divided into three parts with those very headings. Next week, we will look deeper into the law and our misery, which drive us to the foot of the cross and into Christ's saving embrace.